The Foundling Hospital

This blog post is about a grim institution of 18th century Dublin and contains details that some readers may find upsetting.

The many commuters who use the Luas St. James’s stop everyday are almost certainly aware that they are very near to the site of the proposed new National Children’s Hospital. It is unlikely though, that they know their proximity to the site of a very different ‘hospital’ for children;.one of Dublin’s most appalling asylums which lasted from early in the eighteenth century to the opening decades of the 19th.

National Children's Hospital

An artists impression of the new National Children’s Hospital

A brief history of The Ancient Foundling Hospital (UCD Special Collections 35.F.2/11) by William Dudley Wodsworth, is more than long enough to outline the full horror of the story despite the restraint of the author, a Victorian era civil servant.

A foundling is an infant that has been abandoned by parents who cannot care for it for reasons of poverty or from pressures from family and society to relinquish an illegitimate child. Child abandonment is an ancient problem and in medieval times babies were often left at church doors or at a monastery. By the 18th century however, the numbers in Dublin had reached such a level that in 1704 an act of parliament established the Foundling Hospital with a large board of governors that included Johnathan Swift. It is believed that the conditions that prevailed in the Founding Hospital may have inspired Swift’s biting satire ‘A modest Proposal’; the slaughtering of infants for food being held as no more barbaric than condemning them to a more prolonged death in the institution.

The stated objectives of the institution were twofold:

First, to prevent the exposure, death, and actual murder of illegitimate children and secondly to educate and rear children taken charge by the institution in the Reformed or Protestant faith …’

To facilitate the secret abandonment of infants, the institution had what was called ‘The Cradle’ at the entrance. The baby was laid in a basket and a bell rung; then the porter turned a wheel and retrieved the child from the ‘cradle’. Once inside the baby could be kept on the premises or given into the care of a nurse in the country. On reaching the age of twelve they would be ‘apprenticed’ but often unscrupulous employers treated their charges little better than slaves.

Once ‘deposited’, a mother gave up all rights to the child. Mothers who tried to contact their child risked having it ‘Exchanged’ – Dublin children would be transferred to the sister institution in Cork in exchange for Cork inmates who were, in the eyes of the authorities, in a similar ‘danger’. A part of the authorities’ fear was that the nominally Protestant child would be contaminated by a ‘Papist’ parent.

Rocques Map of Dublin 1773

Foundling Hospital (Workhouse) From John Rocques Map of Dublin 1773

Wodsworth cites many original letters from petitioners pleading for the return of their child. Particularly poignant is the petition of a Bridget Kearney who had walked one hundred miles to deliver her baby to the hospital herself. Her circumstances having improved, she pleads for the return of the child. She had the recommendation of a clergyman from Tuam which may account for the eventual successful outcome.

In fairness to Irish society at the time, disquiet about the hospital was evident almost from its beginnings. There were several inquiries instituted both by concerned citizens and by the government during the life of the institution.

The mortality rate was always scandalously high. In 1752 for example, of 691 admissions, 365 children were dead by the end of the year. The shocked words of the Reverend Tisdall in 1757 describing the burial of the children has unfortunate echoes of practices much closer to our own time: ” they were chucked …naked into a hole, eight or ten at a time“.

Foundling Hospital Dining Hall

Foundling Hospital Dining Hall, Dublin ca. 1800

A report ordered by the Irish House of Commons on mortality for the twelve years ending in June 1796 revealed more than 17,000 deaths of the 25,000 admitted! From 1791 to 1796, of the 5,016 infants sent to the hospital infirmary, one solitary child survived! A house of Commons Committee in 1797 reported similar findings and drafted instructions to improve governorship and management. The institution continued for another thirty years until 1829 when a Commons Select Committee mercifully advised the ‘total cessation of further admissions’. It finally closed in 1837.

  • This post was researched and written by Eugene Roche, Assistant Librarian, UCD Special Collections.



Adie, K. (2006). Nobody’s Child: Who Are You When You Don’t Know Your Past?
London : Hodder & Stoughton

Great Britain. House of Commons (1824). Papers relating to the Foundling Hospital of Dublin. Accessed online 18/03/2018

Powell, F. (1981). Dean Swift and the Dublin Foundling Hospital. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 70(278/279), 162-170. Retrieved from

Robins, J. (1987). The lost children: A study of charity children in Ireland, 1700-1900. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration

Rocque, J. (1773) A survey of the city harbour bay and environs of Dublin … by John Rocque chorographer to His Majesty ; with improvements & additions to the year 1773, by Mr. Bernard Scale; James Joyce, Special Collections (W1.U.1/1-4). Also via UCD Digital Library

Wodsworth, W. D. (1876), A brief History of the Foundling Hospital of Dublin From The Year 1702. Dublin: Alexander Thom. Available at UCD Special Collections 35.F.2/11. Also via UCD Digital Library

7 thoughts on “The Foundling Hospital

  1. Angi Dodd says:

    Any info on the Foundling Hospital would be much appreciated. I am in the process of writing a fictional story based on facts.

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